Former Conservative MP James Arbuthnot said he has never read a judgment like the one handed down for the first trial in the Post Office IT system case in the High Court.
Now in the House of Lords, Arbuthnot said the judgment was “quite ferocious”.
The case is part of a group litigation order (GLO), through which more than 500 subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by their treatment after experiencing unexplained losses that they blame on the computer system. They also criticise the Post Office’s failure to investigate unexplained account shortfalls. The Post Office denies these accusations.
“The judgment is devastating, quite devastating. I think that the management of the Post Office, right the way from the top, have been awful in management terms and in their regard for the truth, their regard for justice and their humanity in the way they have treated people,” Arbuthnot told Computer Weekly.
Arbuthnot took the subpostmaters’ fight to the House of Commons and then to the Lords, when he became a peer after retiring as Conservative MP for Hampshire North East. He became involved when one of his constituents, Jo Hamilton, who was a subpostmaster being threatened with jail at the time, contacted him.
Hamilton was interviewed by Computer Weekly in 2009 as one of the seven initial cases made public. Hamilton had a grocery store with a Post Office attached. Unable to explain accounting shortfalls and faced with the prospect of a prison sentence, Hamilton pleaded guilty to false accounting. Her house was remortgaged to pay the money, and the villagers in South Warnborough collected £9,000 between them to help.
“The Post Office has been prepared to see their subpostmasters go to the wall on evidence they knew was wrong or non-existent. It is a shocking state of affairs,” said Arbuthnot.
There will be at least four trials in the case. The first put the relationship between the Post Office and subpostmasters under the spotlight. The second trial, which is focused on the Horizon computer system itself, is currently underway. A third trial, scheduled for October 2019, will focus on individual subpostmasters’ claims, and a fourth trial will probably be held in early 2020.
Following the judgment on the first trial, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said: “This judgment from the first trial is long and detailed and we will take time to consider it fully. There are, however, areas around the interpretation of our contracts where the judge’s conclusions differ from what we expected from a legal standpoint and we are therefore seriously considering an appeal on certain legal interpretations,” he added.
Arbuthnot, who studied law at the University of Cambridge and became a barrister, questioned whether the Post Office would be able to recover in the case after the first judgment.
“I personally find it difficult to see, in legal teams, how the Post Office in trials two, three and four can come back from such a devastating result in trial one,” he said.
“The Post Office was disbelieved all the way down the line, and a senior director at the Post Office was found to be deliberately misleading the judge.”
In the 300-page judgement handed down on 15 March, Judge Fraser said there were two specific matters where Post Office director Van Den Bogerd “did not give me frank evidence, and sought to obfuscate matters, and mislead me”.
‘Intimidating’ culture at Post Office
Arbuthnot criticised the culture within the Post Office. “It is clearly a culture which was designed to bully and intimidate subpostmasters every step of the way and deny them the evidence they needed to question the transactions they believed to be wrong,” he said.
He described Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who has campaigned for justice for almost two decades, as a “tour de force”.
Describing Bates in his judgment for the first trial, Judge Fraser said: “He is undoubtedly committed to resolving this dispute, and given the length of time he has been involved, he must have a degree of stamina and endurance that most people would not possess. He is persistent and no doubt possesses what might be termed staying power.”
Bates was a subpostmaster at Craig-y-Don Post Office in Llandudno, Wales, from 1998 to 2003. In 2000, he discovered a shortfall of more than £1,000 which he couldn’t account for, and wrote to the Post Office. After two further letters, the Post Office wrote back in 2002, saying it would write off the amount, but without giving any reason.
Bates continued to have problems with deficits and refused to sign his weekly accounts, as it would have made him liable for any losses. In 2009, he set up the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which ultimately forced the Post Office into court.
Arbuthnot’s condemnation was also targeted at the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP). “I am particularly pleased that the judge called out the behaviour of the NFSP,” he said.
In his judgment, Judge Fraser said: “It is obvious, in my judgment, that the NFSP is not remotely independent of the Post Office, nor does it appear to put its members’ interests above its own separate commercial interests.”
Following the judgment, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said that despite recent improvements, the judge’s comments were a forceful reminder to do better. “We have taken his criticisms on board and will take action throughout our organisation,” he said.